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Harvard Researchers Create 'Smallest Robotic Insect Capable of Flight'

By Brian C. Zhang, Crimson Staff Writer

A team of Harvard researchers have created what they say is the smallest robotic insect capable of flight—a nickel-sized prototype called RoboBee—that could one day be deployed in swarms for tasks, including environmental monitoring and search-and-rescue operations.

In August, the researchers’ device lifted off for the first time and flew through a sequence of patterns in the air.

“This is the first time that we’ve gotten a robot this small to be controlled in stable flight,” said Kevin Y. Ma, a lead co-author of the paper. “It was a huge relief that all of the effort we put in...finally paid off with a stable controlled flight.”

Principal investigator Robert J. Wood, a professor of engineering and applied sciences, has been working to create robotic insects for the past 12 years.

His team has been flying RoboBees since 2007, but previous models were limited because the motion of flight was constrained.

In order to achieve a full range of motion in three dimensions, the latest model required the RoboBee to have independent control over its two wings, Ma said.

The device weighs only 80 milligrams, which is slightly less than an average honeybee.

“We have to minimize the mass of the structure while adding functionality, and so that required a lot of thinking into how you efficiently utilize the very limited space that you have on the robot,” Ma said.

The RoboBee collaboration includes nine Harvard faculty members, a professor at Northeastern University, and industry partner Centeye, according to its website.

While Wood and his team are focused on manufacturing individual RoboBees with the capabilities of flight, other researchers are designing systems that allow the RoboBees to communicate with each other.

Eventually, the researchers hope to equip these miniature robots with sensors and use them to solve complex tasks as a swarm.

For instance, RoboBees with heat and carbon dioxide sensors could be used to detect human bodies in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Currently, the lab’s prototype is attached to a wire, which provides electrical power and control. Ma said that future research would involve placing all of this functionality onboard the RoboBee, while maintaining a lightweight design.

“The next steps for us are to make the robot fully wireless,” Ma said. “That will involve a lot more research in the miniaturization of batteries, electronics, and sensors.”

—Staff writer Brian C. Zhang can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @brianczhang.

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